Loving Lit Mags: Dan Cafaro

Today we publish Paper Dreams: Writers and Editors on the American Literary Magazine, a compilation of the continued history and conversations of the people who love new and interesting literature so much they spend their lives dedicated to sharing it with the world. But before we make history, it is only polite to introduce you to the literary magazines that most impress us — Atticus staff, authors, and associates.

Allow us the guilt-free pleasure of leading you to publications that have turned us into better writers and voracious readers and to hopefully, carry on the conversation.

Gotta Hand It to You, Mr. Rosset

Barney Rosset, maverick publisher of Grove Press (now Grove Atlantic), founded Evergreen Review in 1957. The print edition lasted 16 years under Mr. Rosset’s helm and debuted pivotal works by many critically acclaimed writers whose viewpoints at the time were, as Mr. Rosset put it, too controversial, unpopular and bizarre for other magazines.

After a 25-year hiatus, Mr. Rosset revived the magazine in an online edition that today features flashbacks to previous Evergreen Review editions, and elegantly carries on the tradition of debuting works by contemporary writers.

Mr. Rosset died last year at the age of 89, but his legacy lives on — and his influence on Atticus Press is enormous.

Late Bloomer, Me

As a misfit writer seeking inspiration in the New Jersey suburbs I had always enjoyed browsing the shelves of family-owned independent bookstores like Womrath’s, but my addiction to printed matter was under wraps and relatively mild until I moved in my late 20s to Bucks County, Pennsylvania, and discovered the immense pleasure of exploring used bookstores.

I believe I first encountered “underground literature” in the historic national treasure known as Baldwin’s Book Barn in West Chester, Pa. My first endangered fruit came in the form of a July 1969 issue of Evergreen Review. No matter that I was able to buy it and the Winter 1966 issue of The Southern Review (published quarterly at Louisiana State University) 25 years later for only fifty cents more than each had cost readers upon publication ($1.00 apiece).

Evergreen Review

Really there was nothing in Evergreen Review No. 68 that was too shocking or altogether revealing. As an adolescent I had been inoculated by the pornography of Hustler magazine (courtesy of a stack of discarded issues in the back parking lot of the liquor store across the street from where I grew up) so there wasn’t much in print that could have rocked my world any more than some of the disturbing fetishes I had seen on the glossy color pages of Larry Flynt’s middle finger to the bourgeoisie.

But what Evergreen Review and The Southern Review did on that same day at Baldwin’s Book Barn was open my narrow worldview to an indie lit and academic journal terra that I hardly knew existed. Up to that point I had gotten my weekly dose of superior, groovier-and-stuffier-than-thou, powerhouse literature from The New Yorker.

The Southern Review

Who knew there was an entire galaxy of journals that supported the mental stability (if not livelihoods) of writers far and wide? Who knew that I could get my hands on periodicals that pushed swordsmanship to new heights by celebrating the craft and sheer act of writing via the publication of not-so-famous (oh let’s face it, obscure) writers?

These dogeared relics–no, make that limited, bound artistic creations–eventually helped me understand the privilege and wonder of discovering diamonds in the rough, those acrobatic wordsmiths known as writer’s writers.

I had found a writer’s holy grail, a literary vortex that had seemed impenetrable. An editorial crack in the planet. An uncommon society of letters that didn’t require knowledge of a secret handshake to join.

The Urge to Evolve

It’s hard, I know, to remember a time when the internet was not ubiquitous. It may be even harder to relate to why it felt so special for me to hold what was then a 25-year-old literary magazine. Why I felt such a thrill with the idea of reading a printed excerpt (the first known American printing) from Jean Genet’s seminal 1953 French novel, Funeral Rites.

Try to imagine what it felt like in 1969 to read what surely must have been the first American printing of Landscape, a play by Harold Pinter. When a limited edition of a playwright’s work actually meant something.

I guess when I first stumbled upon Evergreen in 1994, it wasn’t a stumble at all. It was a launching pad for me to experience intellectual liftoff. I had found a textual pathway that has meandered all my life, but has remained accessible whenever I get the urge to return, to evolve.

Lit mags indeed are a place where readers and writers dare to congregate. They make us all intergalactic travelers. Moreover, lit mags provide cultural enlightenment to the masses. They allow a whole planet of publishers like me to dream about making a worldly difference.

Abbie Hoffman, as illustrated by Rick Meyerowitz in Evergreen Review (July 1969)
Abbie Hoffman, as illustrated by Rick Meyerowitz in Evergreen Review (July 1969)

2 thoughts on “Loving Lit Mags: Dan Cafaro”

  1. Many thanks to you for writing such a wonderful tribute to Barney Rosset, the man, and to Evergreen Review as an institution. It is so hard to remain on the vanguard of an ever changing literary landscape, and we are just glad to hear that people are aligned with us and that mission we start almost sixty years (!) ago.

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